Europe's largest berry bank faces closure
A Russian court ruling favours housing over plant diversity.
The future of the world's largest repository of rare berries and fruit has been thrown into doubt by a court decision today. Russia's Supreme Arbitration Court in Moscow has ruled against an appeal to preserve Pavlovsk Experimental Station, a federally run gene bank housing more than 5,000 varieties of crop that are hard to breed from seeds and so cannot be stored frozen as in typical seed banks.
The Russian Housing Development Foundation (RHDF), a government agency, filed a resolution in December 2009 to repurpose the 70 hectares of land near St Petersburg on which the station is situated. The RHDF's move is in line with its mission to review the usage of federally owned land and privatize sites that are being used unprofitably. The experimental station's non-profit status puts it into this category.
The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St Petersburg, which runs the facility, now has one month to appeal to the superior High Arbitration Court to overturn the Supreme Arbitration Court's decision. The chances of that are slim, however, according to Sergey Alexanian, an institute spokesman. "The courts are only doing their job," he says, "and the law is on the RHDF's side."
"We expected to lose," agrees Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, who has spent months campaigning against the station's destruction. "Our real hope lies with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who could both override the decision of the courts.
"At least the higher appeal will give us time to mobilize more people and hopefully get through the gates of the Kremlin," he adds.
Medvedev has already received more than 100,000 messages or 'tweets' on his Twitter page following a plea by Fowler on The Huffington Post news website. The trust also recently sent him a petition with nearly 1,000 signatures.
The RHDF was not available for comment before Nature went to press.
Founded by Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov in 1926, the station's collection has grown steadily. Today, 90% of its berry species are not stored in any other repository. It is also important to note, says Fowler, that the bank cannot simply be uprooted and replanted elsewhere.
"It would take years to do so," he says, "and since there is no other suitable place in Russia itself, we would be slowed down additionally by legal and quarantine requirements if moving the plants abroad."
"These field collections represent an outstanding international science resource," says Mike Ambrose, manager of the plant genetic collections at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. "They are a living testimony to a rich agricultural heritage.
"Think of them as crown jewels. You don't simply melt them down! And of course, in practical terms, places like these are exactly where breeders and researchers today look for adaptation to climate change that is needed to improve the crops of tomorrow," he says.
Fowler adds that, seen in this light, the economic reasoning of the RHDF is flawed. As he points out, for example, Russia is the world's leading producer of blackcurrants, which make the country's farmers a profit of around US$430 million a year. As Pavlovsk Experimental Station holds nearly 900 domestic and wild varieties of blackcurrants, these could be the base for future breeding efforts to create crops that are more productive or resistant to disease and the impacts of climate change.
If all efforts fail and the upcoming appeal is turned down again, Fowler says that he expects to see bulldozers line up at the site 2–3 months later — just in time for the end of the International Year of Biodiversity.